Dissecting Protection and Peacebuilding—The Local and the Change

by: Mary Mumbi Wachira

“…More like an inquiry. Probing the theory and investigating your interests—for the moment and in time. Seeking the connection and the tension between practice and theory. A search for the location of the individual who is likely impacted and affected by violence and conflict. A rhythmic step toward the hope that the music strums on. An investigation into the connection between psychosocial wellbeing, support, and sustainable peacebuilding.”

This is how I would describe my internship. A curiosity of sorts and a learning process linking me to the work of protection and the relationships therein in a moment to moment movement towards peacebuilding.

I have interned with the Catholic Relief Services EQUIP (Equity, Inclusion, and Peacebuilding) department since July 2019. My focus was on protection and youth in peacebuilding. CRS is a relief and development organization that often works with local partners to promote transformative and sustainable change. Using the holistic approach of integral human development, CRS has programs in agriculture, emergency response and recovery, health, education, microfinance, water security, youth, justice and peacebuilding, and partnership and capacity strengthening.

Group of students, capitol building behind them
Participants group photo outside the US Capitol building during the US Peacebuilding Advocacy to inform lawmakers about the proposed draft Youth, Peace, and Security legislation. Photo courtesy of Alliance for Peacebuilding.

During my time here, I have engaged in both policy formulation around protection issues and advocacy on upcoming Youth, Peace and Security legislation while leaning a lot on my policy analysis lessons at the Keough School. I was based in the Baltimore CRS Headquarters and had proximity to Congress in Washington, DC.

An invitation into planning and design transformed to participation in formulating guiding principles for organizational and humanitarian response in protection and prevention from sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEA). We explored the role of language and culture in PSEA when working in communities. In a field that works with communities towards change, language and culture often determine the expression of violence and, consequently, the social transformation. What does this mean for organizations that choose to use the official languages in multilingual and multicultural countries? Or even the big four languages—English, French, Spanish, and Arabic—in global contexts? By creating a language criteria to promote inclusion, who gets excluded in the communication?

A drawing detailing local peacebuilding in a series of steps
A written image helping to distill conversations on local peacebuilding during the AfP Conference in Washington, DC.

I believe an anthropological reflection would give insight here. The outcomes of this process established the need for incorporating more languages into our roles in community engagement and a survivor-centered approach to acknowledge the asymmetry in agency and power for the vulnerable and affected communities. We must recognize the gender and resource interplay in the conflicts that can get hushed in the search for survival. Everyday. The discussions expressed the importance of focusing on prevention and indicated that when the focus is protection, the root cause is yet to be addressed. Ultimately, the policy called for the need to listen to the local, not just for “box checking,” but with the intention of yielding power and co-creating change to support the human security of survivors.

As CRS adjusted its strategic plan, I had a didactic experience reflecting on the visioning and implementation of peacebuilding into different programming initiatives. What would strategic peacebuilding look like, for instance, in health and gender focused initiatives? Given that implementers at the community level were involved in this process, the relationship and, in some cases, the tension between practice and theory was evident.

As the different actors held this tension with both curiosity and openness to experiment with an idea, I was encouraged. You see, as a learning peacebuilder, I am aware that we certainly do not have the answers or solutions to the violence and conflict in our world today. By all means, we try, we show up, we ask questions and seek to hear how communities and people envision peace. Then, we accompany the process and the people, we implement the ideas, and sometimes we build and inform the idea through feedback and functional relationships in that space. It sounds simple, but so does a surgical process on paper. Until you begin the dissection and realize that this is an intricate process needing attention, skill, listening, and presence with human beings—all at the same time and in an appropriate environment. And conflict and violence are not predictable.

When I began the examination of the implementation of the Singing to the Lions workshop, I found myself often interrogating the political, social, economic, and cultural contexts of the participants. Singing to the Lions is a psycho-education workshop to build resilience and foster social cohesion among children in contexts of violence and conflict. When noticing resilience in a community, we also need to look at the local and shared underlying structures making them resilient and reinforcing them toward sustainable peacebuilding. This provides the appreciative inquiry into how well the environment fosters the individual’s psychosocial wellbeing and possibilities of sustainable peace.

In this process, I found that although the target audience is children, depending on their context and needs, different implementers have “cherry-picked” what works for their contexts and other identities (age and role). Certainly, this modification impacts how the evaluation of such an approach works, even with a preexisting monitoring and evaluation process. What would contextual indicators look like from the perspective of the individual in this case? Please ponder with me here.

Finally, I wonder, “what, who and how” have I become as a nascent peacebuilder? I don’t wish to get lost in the process and emerge without a soul in the end. I am grateful for the community of colleagues that held me in the learning and the inquiry. I am present to the local communities where my feet journeyed for this transient time. As I reflect with hope for those who continually work and seek change, I join you all in the reflective practice, in the study, and in being.

Mary poses, arms crossed, next to a CRS
Me, at the CRS headquarters office in Baltimore, Maryland.

Rebuilding Marawi City: Linkages of Peacebuilding, Environment, and Development

by: Novita L. Kumala

When MP Maisara Dandamun Latiph informed me that my internship would entail frequent travel to Cotabato City, Maguindanao, and Marawi City, Lanao del Sur, I said yes excitedly. I also could not shake my latent worry about traveling to Marawi City.

Marawi was once a thriving, picturesque city on a lake, and capital city to the Province of Lanao del Sur in the Philippines. Unlike the rest of the Filipino population, the majority of the people within Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), including Marawi, are Muslim. Hence, Marawi is also formally known as the Islamic City of Marawi, distinguishing itself within the Christian majority state of the Philippines.

My concern for travel to Marawi was due to the highly publicized Marawi Siege back in 2017. On May 23, 2017, Marawi was attacked and then overtaken by an ISIS-affiliated group known as the Maute group. The battle between Maute and the Armed Forces of the Philippines lasted five months, leaving a considerable portion of old-town Marawi in ruins and people fleeing for refuge.

Rebuilding Marawi City: Linkages of Peacebuilding, Environment, and Development
Marawi City, the most affected area.

Having now visited the city several times as a part of my six-month field immersion project, here is a glimpse of the story of Marawi from my observation.

About my peacebuilding internship

I am currently the legal researcher for Attorney Maisara Dandamun Latiph, one of the 80 members of Bangsamoro parliament. She is a lawyer and one of the drafters of the Bangsamoro Organic Law, a Philippine law that provided for the establishment of the political entity currently known as the BARMM. She is appointed by the President.

In my role, I attend parliamentary sessions and listen to their debates on various issues, ranging from the dengue and polio outbreaks to Department of Public Works projects and annual budget planning. I then research issues for MP Maisara based on what the office needs and assist with the drafting of various documents from letters to resolutions to draft bills.

During our onboarding process, MP Maisara briefed me on several of her priority legislative issues, which ranged from education and Islamic banking to lake conservation and protection of vulnerable populations.

Rebuilding Marawi City: Linkages of Peacebuilding, Environment, and Development
Parliamentary Plenary Session, Shariff Kabunsuan Cultural Complex Hall, Cotabato City, Maguindanao.

Focus on Lake Lanao

As a member of parliament, one of the legislative priorities of MP Maisara is the rehabilitation and conservation of Lake Lanao. As a native Meranao, she has a cultural attachment to the lake, in part because the Meranao people derive their name from it. “Ranao” or “Ranaw” within the Meranao local vernacular means “lake,” so “Meranao” means “people of the lake.”

Numerous articles and pieces of research have highlighted the plight of Lake Lanao due to unsustainable water use by various stakeholders and industries, including the power industry, local agriculture, household wastewater from the surrounding settlement area, and, more recently, effects of the Marawi siege. Even hydropower plants, despite championing their cause as “green” and low carbon, pose a danger to the lake’s water balance and biodiversity. Compounded by the threat of climate change, there is a looming threat that the lake and its water tributaries will go dry.

If that happens, what happens to the Meranao people? What will the people of the lake become without their namesake?

My first visit to Marawi City was to assist MP Maisara in hosting her first-ever public consultation on the issue of Lake Lanao rehabilitation and conservation. Participants agreed that the best next step would be to establish a Lake Development Authority overseeing the conservation and sustainable use of the lake’s various resources. Since then, we have had several meetings with a technical working group to formulate a better bill, which establishes a Development Authority.

Rebuilding Marawi City: Linkages of Peacebuilding, Environment, and Development
A visit to Lake Lanao.

Marawi City: Now

It has been two years since the siege ended. Yet, the scars and trauma run deep for the people, even for Marawi residents used to the sound of daily gunshots from feuding clans. Marawi residents who lived in the most affected areas cannot return to their homes because the city is still closed and has not yet been rebuilt. The process of cleaning the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and demolition of some of the buildings is still on-going.

Rebuilding Marawi City: Linkages of Peacebuilding, Environment, and Development
A visit to Marawi’s most affected area with the other staff and Laguna Lake Development Authority guests from Manila—What expression should you make?

Even those who did not live in the most affected area have left the city to settle in Iligan City or Cagayan de Oro. The memory of that day still haunts them.

Marawi Rehabilitation: Opportunity?

The process of Marawi rehabilitation and protection of Lake Lanao showcases an obvious opportunity for a better and more sustainable development plan.

When it comes to post-conflict environmental peacebuilding, water has long been vital for building sustainable peace and for providing immediate societal benefits. I think Marawi and its proximity to Lake Lanao represent what long-term post-conflict peacebuilding should look like.

The location of Marawi City and Lake Lanao within Lanao del Sur.

The emerging notion in environmental peacebuilding is that by taking environmental issues into post-conflict peacebuilding policies it will contribute to sustainable peace. Instead of making the environment an afterthought in constructing post-conflict and development plans, the environment needs to be at the foundation of the framework.  The logic goes as follows: sound environmental governance, legislated and implemented during the transition period, will contribute to sustainable and lasting peace to minimize conflict over resources.

I hope that the people, the Government of Philippines, and the Bangsamoro Government do not fall into the common trap of sacrificing the environment in exchange for short-term economic development. Long-term planning is more crucial, as the threat of climate change is no longer near but here already. An integrated approach to the environment, conflict, and peace are imperative for the Government’s program and policy as well as incoming development projects to the area.

Multidisciplinary Approach in the Future

Environmental peacebuilding draws its body of knowledge from various disciplines. In this particular case, from environmental conservation, structural-institutional change, and post-conflict peacebuilding (trauma healing, etc.). As students of the Keough School, we will encounter more complex challenges upon graduation nowadays, especially problems exacerbated by climate change. With its interdisciplinary approach and mix of several concentrations, hopefully the Keough School can prepare students for challenging circumstances like these.

For me, Marawi rehabilitation represents the complexity and scale of challenges that environmental, peacebuilding, and development actors will increasingly face.

The Centrality of Hopeful Youth in Building Trust Across Diverse Groups

by: Nzubechi Pantaleon Uwaleme

How does one move from living “with” the people to living “among” the people without having one’s  “otherness” or “foreignness” amplified in everyday life? This and many other questions continued to occupy my mind the moment I began my field experience in Kenya.

I had learned in my Ethnographic Methods for Peace Research class various ways of navigating the field, taking conscious note of one’s positionality and reflexivity in research contexts. My experience in Kenya has been full of opportunities for reflections and making observations that help to understand how my identity in a particular context shapes events around me. I’m interning with the Life and Peace Institute’s Kenya Program in Nairobi. LPI is an international center for conflict transformation that works  in the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region.

How Sustained Dialogue Prepares Youth For Change

As a non-Kiswahili speaker, I have struggled to interact  with young people, the constituents of my field engagement, given their preference for sheng or Kiswahili slang. This is one point where my identity becomes an opportunity for building relationships and friendships, as many of the youth participants at the Sustained Dialogue (SD) sessions (LPI’s pilot program for the youth as drivers of peace) are fascinated by the uniqueness of my name, opening space  for interaction and mutual exchanges. Most of my time at LPI is  spent listening  to young people’s  stories, issues, and challenges, and their hopes for a better future. The youth participants at the SD sessions get to spend seven months experiencing the five stages of Sustained Dialogue: The Who, The What, The Why, The How, and The Now! The SD session is designed to enable youth participants to become more aware of their issues, understand each other, and utilize the process of dialogue to transform tense relationships while acquiring skills that will help them shape their future.

The Centrality of Hopeful Youth in Building Trust Across Diverse Groups
Meeting and discussing with youth moderators during a Sustained Dialogue session.

In spending quality time with these youth, I have been exposed to the realities of being a struggling young person in Kenya. Many young people in Kenya are facing strained relationships with security forces, especially the police. Some of them emphasized the lack of trust between security actors and young people, which results in profiling, indifference, and extra-judicial killings. There is a high rate of crime involving or suspecting youths. As a result, it has become a norm to categorize the youth population as “unsafe” and “harmful” thereby creating prejudices and biases on the capacity of youth to be agents of change. However, it has become unpopular to look beyond these stereotypes and focus and assess whether every youth is unsafe or harmful as described.

When I look at the long process of SD, the seven months of activities, and how committed these youth have been so far, I wonder  why we can’t see the hope in them for a better future. These youth have learned the physical, social, and psychological dimensions of supporting one another. They’ve learned to cope with their peers’ stories of trauma and tackle challenges together. They have learned the process of dialogue and how to be accommodating, tolerant, and supportive of one another. I have realized that when you confront reality, abstract concepts become difficult to talk about but easy to understand.

The Centrality of Hopeful Youth in Building Trust Across Diverse Groups
Participating in exchange, learning and reflection sessions in Nakuru with SD youth moderators.

Transforming Themselves To Transform Others

During this transformative process, I have come to know these youth as “hopeful”. The resilience they have shown through peace actions and community service is one that is born out of a conscious desire for constructive social change. Many of these youth have used the SD sessions to transform themselves from passive observers to active peacebuilders in their communities. They’ve transformed themselves to transform others. Given the diversity of participants, the process has led to changes in attitudes—between Muslims and Christians, different tribes, and the majority-minority divides—thus, building trust and relationships that transcend prejudice and generational biases.

I have participated in many of the activities organized by these youth. They have used graffiti messages to demonstrate  hope and encourage their peers to avoid crime; they have provided bins in public places that are targets for waste accumulation; they have planted trees to support climate action and to remind themselves that they are on a journey of growth; they have raised awareness and campaigned against electoral violence in various counties; they have coordinated dialogues for youth in the streets;  they have used theatre and other arts to make peace less remote to the local people; and they have equally been involved in resolving conflicts among youth from different communities.

The Centrality of Hopeful Youth in Building Trust Across Diverse Groups
Taking the “change is in your hands” placard from a fellow youth during an awareness campaign in Eastleigh alongside International Day of Peace.

These are various ways the hope-filled  youth are driving the wheel of change, bringing their peers together and addressing the local dynamics of youth issues using a local response that propels others into action. Many reformed youth attribute their change of action to the very inspiration they got from the SD participants during their peace actions in communities. Many are expressing how they’ve been lured into the good life by their peers who are hopeful for a better future for them.

The Centrality of Hopeful Youth in Building Trust Across Diverse Groups
An overlook of the Westlands neighborhood from my apartment in Nairobi.

Addressing Structural Violence within Transitional Justice Processes

by: Maria Isabel Leon Gomez Sonet

Given my current interest in the links between structural violence, inequality, and transitional justice, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) in Cape Town, South Africa, has been the ideal place to carry out research for my MGA capstone project. Initially, my inclination was to choose a Latin American country, given that all of my professional and academic experience up to that point had focused on Latin America, particularly on human rights and U.S. foreign policy in the region. However, I decided that, given the opportunity to conduct research as part of my Master of Global Affairs program, I should do so in a new context to compare, learn, and analyze solutions carried out by other countries for problems similar to those in my own region.

Understanding South Africa’s history

As I read about South Africa in a post-apartheid era, one thing was clear to me: the peace negotiations and the transitional justice process—mainly focused on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)—were successful in stopping direct violence, leading to democracy and the creation of a new constitution. The constitution appears comprehensive and inclusive of all South Africans; however, the promises of change mostly remain on paper and the structural foundations of apartheid are still in place.

South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. This inequality results in huge socioeconomic issues such as poverty and unemployment as well as limited access to basic services such as health, sanitation, and education for the majority of the Black population.

Dsitrict Six Suitcase, an example of the research into links between structural violence, inequality, and transitional justice
Visiting the District Six museum. District Six is a former residential area in Cape Town. More than 60,000 people were forcibly removed by the apartheid government during the 1970s and it was declared a whites-only area.

South Africa and Guatemala: Cases of Historical Inequalities unaddressed during Transitional Justice Processes

As I now study the South African case, I find connections with the Guatemalan case, a country where a comprehensive peace agreement was finalized in 1996 after years of civil conflict.

Prior to joining the Keough School, I worked in Guatemala and saw firsthand how, despite an inclusive peace agreement signed almost 25 years ago, the indigenous people (who were the main victims of the conflict) are still living in poverty, marginalization, as well as enduring criminal violence and militarization. Both countries have a deep history of embedded racism and inequality, which to this day remain unsolved behind promises of peace and reconciliation.   

My research is a case-study-based approach regarding South Africa and Guatemala. I focus on moments of missed opportunities, turning points, and failed policies that resulted in the inequality and structural violence still present in both cases—even after inclusive transitional documents. I would like to explore these questions for both cases, keeping in mind the economic and political contexts, as well as the international and external pressures both countries faced at the time of transition. As I collect my data in South Africa, I have five topics of emphasis that transitional justice processes fail to address: socioeconomic inequality, gender justice, security reform, mental health, and issues of land and other natural resources.

Protesting Climate Change
In front of the South African Parliament where youth came together to demand climate change action.

Comparative findings thus far

In the case of South Africa, the TRC’s narrow and legalistic definitions of justice and violence resulted in the recognition of only 22,000 official victims of human rights violations. The millions of people that suffered systemic structural violence during the apartheid years were not counted as victims. For instance, during apartheid, more than two million people were forcibly displaced from their homes and land. However, these displacements were not taken into account as violations and therefore not subject to policies of reparation. In Guatemala, promises from the State to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples and to address historic inequalities remain on the papers of the peace agreements.

Both countries face ongoing issues such as violence against women rising at alarming levels. High levels of criminal violence and gangs leading to the militarization of poor and already vulnerable communities are present in both. Gender justice, as well as important reforms to the security sector, did not occur during transition periods. In both contexts, issues of healing, addressing trauma, and psychosocial as well as mental health problems stemming from violent conflict and structural violence have been superficially addressed by the State and seen mainly as the responsibility of civil society.

As we have learned in the International Peace Studies concentration coursework, achieving peace is not only about stopping direct violence. We refer to this as negative peace (as per the work of Johan Galtung). Positive peace is inclusive of transforming oppressive systems that will address systemic injustices and inequalities.

The exclusion of socioeconomic issues, gender, land, trauma, and security sector reform from transitional justice is not accidental. Transitional justice processes have been historically important to document and disclose the truth behind massive human rights violations. However, these processes often aim for liberal constitutional democracy and market economy as their end goal.

Transitional justice should be a long-term process—rather than a truth commission with a deadline—and should focus on transforming oppressive and unequal power relationships and structures that are at the root of the conflict itself.

A comprehensive and holistic agenda for transitional justice processes is hard to deliver in practice, and we must take into consideration the economic and political contexts in place. However, we cannot dismiss the important connections between peacebuilding in post-conflict societies and socioeconomic and development issues. Otherwise, we run the risk that victims of direct violence will perpetually suffer from structural injustices, and that promises of a new post-conflict nation will remain only on paper.

A photo in Nelson Mandela's house
Picture taken while I visited Nelson Mandela’s house in Soweto, a township outside Johannesburg.

Nuclear Weapons and the Moral Imagination

By: Nate Van Duzer

Last spring in our Strategic Peacebuilding course, the MGA Peace Studies students learned about the concept of “the moral imagination” from peacebuilder and former Kroc Institute faculty member John Paul Lederach. I’ve been reflecting on this concept during my six-month field placement as a researcher with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in Geneva, Switzerland. It strikes me that, in the world of international advocacy, ICAN exhibits a clear moral imagination.

In 2017, ICAN was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its successful campaign that led to the landmark 2017 United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Underlying the campaign’s hard work was a simple premise: focus the conversation on the catastrophic, real-world humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, not on abstract political concepts.

ICAN won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017. They let me hold it.

Nuclear weapons used to be the only category of weapons of mass destruction not banned by international legal instruments, but the 2017 treaty fills that gap. More than two-thirds of the world’s states support it; governments around the world have been engaging in internal processes to ratify the treaty, which will enter into force once 50 nations ratify it.

In his book The Moral Imagination, Lederach defines the title concept “as the capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist.” Developing a moral imagination is a community vocation, not just an individual one. With hundreds of partner organizations around the world, ICAN builds a shared vision of a world without nuclear weapons.

Some critique the work for a future without nuclear weapons as being hopelessly idealistic or irrational. In her speech accepting the Nobel prize on behalf of ICAN, Executive Director Beatrice Fihn countered, “but we represent the only rational choice. We represent those who refuse to accept nuclear weapons as a fixture in our world, those who refuse to have their fates bound up in a few lines of launch code.” Later in the speech Fihn declared, “those who say that future is not possible need to get out of the way of those making it a reality.”

The main assembly hall at the United Nations in Geneva.

ICAN recognizes the challenges of the current moment in nuclear disarmament policy. Regular news headlines showcase what seems to be a renewal of the nuclear arms race among the nine states with nuclear weapons. But the organization remains hopeful in its outlook, believing in the possibility of an end goal that many cannot even envision. This belief, in my opinion, is the moral imagination at work.

In my first year after college, I worked for an organization called Sojourners. The head of that organization, Rev. Jim Wallis, often says, “hope is believing, in spite of the evidence, and then watching the evidence change.” As more countries ratify the 2017 treaty, as more financial institutions refuse to fund companies that produce nuclear weapons, as more parliamentarians in nuclear-weapons-supporting states sign a pledge to support the 2017 treaty, the evidence for how the world understands these weapons changes.

This fieldwork assignment at ICAN has proven to be a refreshing perspective shift for me. For almost a decade before enrolling at Notre Dame, I worked inside local government institutions. A lot of good work can be accomplished from within government, but it is easy in that environment to get stuck in existing paradigms and lose vision about what other futures might be possible. Effective civil society advocacy can remind us of those alternative futures–and give us a glimpse of the moral imagination at work.

Switzerland is very expensive, but also a magical mountain wonderland.

The Case for Rehabilitation: Peaceful Responses for Interrupting Violent Patterns in El Salvador

By: Jacqueline Shrader

When I first started sharing with my colleagues and community that I would be living in El Salvador working with ex-gang members, their first question was “Will you be safe?” This question was admittedly ironic, since my placement was with Creative Associate International’s Crime and Violence Prevention Project (CVPP). While the question was rooted in concern for my well-being, it reflects the ways in which the discourse around El Salvador is dominated by violence, gangs, and poverty. 

At the Keough School of  Global Affairs, many of our classes demand interrogation of themes like this. In contexts of violence such as those in El Salvador, there has been a tendency to rely on repressive tactics that risk exacerbating the problem. There are an estimated 60,000-70,000 active gang members in El Salvador. If each of those gang members is part of a family who could be affected by repression, then there is tremendous risk for creating more division in the larger society rather than addressing the original conflict. 

The CVPP is one of the first large projects to work on tertiary prevention, which is direct intervention with people looking to leave gangs. Focusing on rehabilitation of people trying to leave the gangs—already very challenging—creates opportunities to lower the number of gang members, decrease violence, and address original factors that lead to people joining gangs. Out of most of the ex-gang members I have spoken with, many reference wanting to feel like their identity is respected and that their well-being sustained. Due to contexts of unresolved conflict, scarce resources, classism and other issues that maintain violence, people who join the gangs seek alternative groups that respect their human dignity.

Ciudad Delgado - El Salvador
CVPP has focused on public space rehabilitation. This was a community painted mural that seeks to brighten the neighborhood and reinforce community building.

For example, there are two dominant gangs in El Salvador, both of which originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s and 90s. During these years, a surge of Central American immigrants fleeing civil war and conflict landed in LA seeking refuge. LA did not have the infrastructure to support the sudden influx of  people, which resulted in high unemployment and dense urban living situations. Existing gang violence and insufficient municipal infrastructure created an impossible reality, which led to the creation of new gangs for safety and community reasons. With high homicide rates and violence in LA, the US responded with heavy-handed incarceration and deportation policies. This response sent young men back to their birth countries, though many  did not even speak Spanish. The policy implementation could not have foreseen the violence that the US would export back to Central America, which in 20 years would create a new iteration of the immigration crisis. 

For the last 10  years or so, the popular rhetoric assigned to gangs and gang members in Central America has been one based on violence and fear. The violence perpetuated by gangs is harsh and inexcusable, leaving several communities in El Salvador struggling. Through extortion and other forms of violence, the gangs in El Salvador pose threats to the Salvadoran social fabric that increase instability, migration, and lower chances of success. With every new iteration of repressive mano dura, or Iron Fist policy, gangs adopt a more formal infrastructure and presence. 

Gang members may commit violent acts, but the questions need to be asked in order to think about gangs origin and historical trajectory. Why did they end up in a gang in the first place? How did the public institutions, international policies, and social fabric fail people enough that they would join a gang? How do gangs provide a sense of safety or security to involved people that they may not feel otherwise? Applying an anthropological lens reveals more answers that may not excuse behavior, but offer hints for disrupting and transforming violence. 

Chapel painting
This painting hangs in the Chapel at the University of Central America, San Salvador. It depicts the military’s violence during the civil conflict, which eventually led to the murder of 6 Jesuit priests in 1989 by the military.

As a peacebuilder from the USA, I come home every day with new questions, information and experiences to think about. My country not only deported the original gangsters, but also policies that provide quick answers without addressing root causes. Scholar-activist John Paul Lederach’s reflections resound daily: “To speak well and listen carefully is no easy task at times of high emotions and deep conflict. People’s very identity is under threat.” The starting question may still be, “Will you be safe?” But as practitioners, we must reframe the question to “How is this person not safe due to underlying structural and historical causes that threaten the dignity of the person in front of me?” If practitioners do not, we risk replicating historical patterns of violence towards current and future generations, compounding the root causes and contributing to future insecurity. 

Pupusas
Pupusas are a famous Salvadoran food.

Voices of Hope Amid Complexities

By: Ephraim Bassey Emah

To what extent should outside peacebuilders (or newcomers) display optimism for positive social change despite the presence of protracted conflicts in an environment? This is a question that I struggle to answer as I engage my Master of Global Affairs field experience in Myanmar.

Based on my interactions so far, it is clear that as long as local populations, who are the most affected by the conflict, demonstrate optimism, then outside interveners should keep the faith and continue to show solidarity with them. This attitude, I would argue, should be part of the professional ethics and individual responsibility of [outside] peacebuilders, and shape how we engage with conflict-affected populations. The strength that communities need to transform conflict relationships, achieve long-term social change, and thrive is often embedded in their collective display of resilience, positive attitudes, and belief that violent conflicts will de-escalate or disappear.

Overlook of Yangon from RAFT Office.

Myanmar is a beautiful country with a rich culture, substantial mineral deposits, and a friendly people. Despite these endowments, different complex issues continue to drive conflict escalation and frequent clashes between the country’s military, called Tatmadaw, and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in different parts of the country. Continued conflicts in Shan and Rakhine states are just one of the major conflicts that occur around the country. The continuation of fighting in locations like Rakhine State reveals the complexity of contextual issues and how the outcomes of the conflicts shape relationships among citizens. Ethnonationalism, ethnocentrism, demand for political autonomy and resource control, and the weaponization of religion to incite hate are some of the factors that sustain the conflicts. A continuous polarization of identity and broader national security by different armed actors, including the government, threatens social cohesion and the possibilities of achieving integral human development, a core principle and goal of the Keough School.

Achieving sustainable peace and human flourishing in environments affected by high-intensity conflict is difficult. As I engage in deep reflections about opportunities that exist amid the complexity in Myanmar, interactions with youth help me realize that outside peacebuilders’ emphasis should be on integral human development and integral peace. Pursuing both goals emphasizes the importance of “carrying everyone along.”

However, the optimism of many groups who are working beyond narratives of hate and stereotypes demonstrates significant hope for peace and conflict transformation in the country. This optimism is further amplified by the existence of civil society organizations, like RAFT, whose organizational make-up reflects a dynamic mix of technical capacity, contextual awareness and sensitivity, firm resolve and commitment to collaborative peacebuilding actions, and a desire to build peace across various identities. My immersion in Myanmar, through the guidance of RAFT, enables me to more deeply understand the ethics associated with engaging local contexts, being sensitive to different dynamics that exist, carefully triangulating information, and maintaining the best attitude and poise that is required to manage conflicts.

It is evident that because the sources of conflicts often emerge from local populations, they are better placed to develop locally-owned and locally-driven solutions for transforming their problems. Therefore, as a peacebuilder and participant-observer, it is my responsibility to interact cautiously within this space. Because we do not wish to do harm, peacebuilders should recognize that we are not “saviors,” but “facilitators” of positive social change. We may be experts with technical capacity, but may never be experts of local solutions. Therefore, supporting local populations to identify and leverage available resources and utilize their agency to build peace is one of the greatest gifts that outside peacebuilders or interveners can give in any context.

Program Coordination Meeting with some RAFT colleagues.

The growing level of hope for a peaceful Myanmar among young people stirs their resolve to display group solidarity regardless of their ethnic or religious inclinations. I remember Min Nyan Shwe, a young colleague at RAFT, telling me one time that “even though there is fighting everywhere, we know things will change one day.” This hope expands the space for mobilizing collective action towards reducing discrimination, strengthening the agency of youth to pressure conflict actors to end violence, promoting social cohesion, and transforming narratives that have divided citizens for decades.

My interactions with many young people have also opened my eyes to the paradox of a peacebuilder’s position. Although the positionality of peacebuilders provides power, legitimacy, and increases access to resources, our work will be more effective when we channel our resources toward sustaining the optimism growing among local actors, regardless of the difficulties that they face. It is not “what” peacebuilders offer to transform conflicts that often matters; it is “how” these resources are transmitted that sustains peacebuilding.

A Display of Youth Solidarity.

As peacebuilders enter new environments, we automatically become a part of the context and its issues. Our vocation is one that requires us to identify and create solutions constantly. Solutions are easily recognized through genuine and deep reflection, respect for context, awareness of sensitivities, developing and maintaining the right relationships, and a display of humility to learn through the processes that shape us.

Peacebuilding is a conscious journey toward identifying opportunities for inclusive and sustainable solutions, despite the existence of structural and institutional complexities. Solutions are not always created. Sometimes, they are already available at our fingertips. We only need to reflect, visualize them, and overcome the fears and constraints that the environment may create towards implementing them.

My learning journey in Nepal and India: housing, hospitality, and community building

by: Maria Belen Zanzuchi

On any other May 25—Argentina’s May Revolution celebration—you would find me at my parents’ house, sitting by the fireplace and eating traditional Argentine food. But this year was different. Landing in Kathmandu, Nepal for the first time, I took one step outside the plane and was already sweating. I lowered the window in my taxi, hoping for fresh air and a view on the way to my new apartment, but car tailpipes smoked like a chimney and clouds of dust obscured the mountains. Many people wore face masks, and several buildings were still under reconstruction after the monstrous 2015 earthquake. In a city with no traffic lights but plenty of cows and motorbikes, my mind was jostled by frequent sudden stops and punctuated by the sound of vehicle horns.

View of Kathmandu
View of Kathmandu from Bhaktapur Square, where many temples are still under reconstruction after the 2015 Earthquake.
Street in Kathmandu
Street in Kathmandu.

Warm, chaotic and notoriously polluted was my first impression of Kathmandu, but nothing could dampen the excitement of beginning my Integration Lab summer research. In partnership with Catholic Relief Services (CRS), my teammate Brian and I were to visit communities in Nepal and India to better understand how we might encourage disaster-affected populations to adopt hazard-resilient housing reconstruction practices. CRS aims to promote human development by responding to major crises. The organization seeks to expand culturally appropriate housing that meets international standards and enables future upgrades to permanent shelter. 

 

Learning from chaos

As the days went by, I started to enjoy the chaos. Every day I set foot outside, my body and mind filled with energy. I was delighted by the colors, the smell of incense in the streets, the mixture of religions, the countless temples and, mainly, the people. Despite their meager resources, every house welcomed us with a smile and offered tea and food. Our attempts to speak local words brought curious smiles as well.  

Gorkha, Nepal household survey
During a household survey in a rural community in Gorkha, Nepal.

 

Nepal household tea
During a household survey in Nepal. The owner offered us some tea after it.

Though every day I’d learned something different, there was one thing that stood out: the dynamic inside the communities. Every time we visited a house, at least one neighbor was already there having tea or talking to the house owner. A simple household survey would sometimes turn into a focus group with neighbors joining to help answer the questions. Many of these people also work together under a labor exchange (parma) system cultivating crops. Yet, astonishingly, they don’t usually help each other to build safer houses. At least in Nepal, some communities used to work together to (re)build traditional houses before the earthquake, but haven’t done so since.

Filling gaps and thinking forward

I started to ask why such close communities no longer exchange labor for house reconstruction. Some said they were struggling to repair their own houses and were not able to care for neighbors’ houses, but others said that once a household obtains a government grant to build a safer (usually brick) house, the community won’t help. Community members assume that someone with a grant doesn’t need the community’s help. 

How is it that the grant scheme prevents people from helping each other to build safer houses if they used to work together for traditional ones? This was a living example of the unintended consequences of development work we discussed in one of our Master of Global Affairs classes at the Keough School. 

 

Devastated community after Cyclone Fani
A community devastated after Cyclone Fani in Odisha, India.

Revising the grant program to address this issue would require larger players to exert influence, but development workers can help fill this gap by promoting community resilience.  Community resilience not only helps families save time and money (the few communities that did work exchange for house reconstruction saved up to 50 percent of labor costs), it also can help them heal and move forward after a traumatic event. Promoting community resilience might not be an easy task, but it’s one that’s worth trying, especially in an environment where community members are already close to each other. How do we do this? I don’t have the answer.

One last important lesson I learned from the field is that people are happy to share their views and experiences. All we need to do is listen carefully. Before we try to change their behavior, we need to listen to understand what motivates them, what they fear, whom they trust, and what they stand for. Their fears, needs, and incentives are usually rooted in something real and shaped by the larger environment. Policies don’t take place in a bubble, and behaviors are not changed by simply suggesting “universal” best practices. The development world needs to listen to and work with communities to face the challenges ahead.

Welcomed into the community
Women welcoming Brian and me when entering their community in Odisha, India.

 

Top four things to know about collaborations in the NGO world

by: Max Ngoc Nguyen

In February Greg Van Kirk, founder of Community Empowerment Solutions (CES) and an Ashoka Fellow, approached our Keough School i-Lab team and proposed an intriguing research question: NGOs tend to work in silos, thus miss out on potential collective outcomes as a result. Could our team work with CES in designing a platform that would encourage NGOs to collaborate with other organizations in order to maximize social impact? As we have begun to dive deeper into this project, we have learned fascinating things from the 54 organizations we have interviewed.

1. Organizations collaborate better than we expected

Before heading to our fieldwork in Guatemala and Ecuador, where CES has a strong presence, we spent two months in the classroom conducting research on why most NGOs do not collaborate with one another. We spoke to experts, examined academic literature, and perused articles on SSIR. We came up with a plethora of reasons: nonprofits compete for the same funding, NGO employees are too busy, organizations are not interested. Basically, we started with the assumption that there is little collaboration in the NGO sector.

MGA student Max Ngoc Nguyen stands with his i-Lab partner, Dominic Scarcelli and the founder of Ecofiltro, Philip Wilson, in rural Guatemala.
We interviewed the founder of Ecofiltro, Philip Wilson, ND ’89. Ecofiltro aspires to provide clean drinking water to rural Guatemala.

During the course of our interviews, we learned that organizations are collaborating more actively than our research suggested, at least in Guatemala and Ecuador. In fact, 83% of the interviewed NGOs exhibit dynamic patterns of either working with or looking to work with others. One executive director from an education NGO in Antigua, Guatemala, summed up this sentiment best:

We’re always looking for partnership. In fact, I believe that creating and promoting partnerships with a lot of NGOs that have affinity [with us] is the only way we’re going to make an impact.”

2. Organizations that look beyond their field of specialty tend to seek more alliances

We have noticed an interesting correlation: NGOs that express the desire to offer services beyond their areas of expertise are more likely to reach out to others. As an example, in Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, we came across a social enterprise that specializes in exporting artisan products to the United States. They also want to improve the health conditions of their employees, but they do not have skills in that field. Thus, according to the Development Manager, they partnered up with others:

“We have a health-based initiative, such as sexual health family planning. But we’re not a health-based organization. So we collaborate with organizations with specialty in health-based education. They can provide us with tools, resources, or modules for education. In return, we provide access to communities.”

MGA student Dominic Scarcelli waiting to catch a boat on Lake Atitlán, Guatemala
My teammate, Dominic Scarcelli, is waiting to catch a boat on Lake Atitlán, Guatemala.

3. The greatest challenge to collaboration is different priorities

The aforementioned challenges that we researched in class are indeed echoed by some NGOs, but 35% of the interviewees believe the biggest obstacle to collaboration is conflicting priorities. In Cuenca, Ecuador, a nonprofit focused on technical training for farmers told us that they would only work with groups that offer complimentary services to theirs. If you want to make clean water, build schools, or construct a soccer field, for example, they are just not that into you.

4. Capacity-building workshops are key to creating partnerships

An overwhelming 77% of organizations have claimed that they initiate collaboration because they have a friend who works for another NGO, met a potential partner at a fair, or even bumped into someone at a bar. From these observations, we have concluded that in order for alliance-building to flourish, we need to make these coincidental meetings happen more frequently and systematically.

MGA student Max Ngoc Nguyen playing soccor with community members in a plaza in Ecuador.
In our spare time, we played soccer with community members in Ñamarín, Ecuador.

We have discovered that one of the best ways to do so is through organizing training workshops on various topics. Staffers and leaders from different NGOs come to these events to acquire knowledge in fundraising, navigating social media, and managing foreign volunteers. Whatever the theme is, participants get to know one another, exchange contacts, and build personal connections. Afterwards, they start to collaborate with one another.

In conclusion, NGOs are indeed working together more often than we anticipated. But these partnerships take place organically. We believe the platform we are designing for CES will help these collaborations occur on a systematic scale. Most important of all, it will incorporate the personal connections necessary to spark enduring alliances among NGOs.

Be grateful for everything and keep going

by: Mukhlisa Khudayberganova

“To take for granted” is a phrase that describes most of the actions of humanity. We take our health, fresh air we are breathing, education, and even people for granted, failing to properly appreciate them. My journey to Chile, which started three weeks late because of a visa delay—or “bureaucracy” as Chileans call it—has made me ponder this phrase and its active role in our lives.

I had heard a lot of good things about Chile, so I had very high expectations for my Integration Lab research project and was really excited when I got my visa. However, it was a little bit of a disenchantment for me to see the polluted air of Santiago and not be able to see the beauty of the city because of urban smog. While we were driving to our home, my host dad tried to show and explain the geography and parts of the capital, but most of the time we could not see the buildings or mountains.

A city street in Santiago. The Andes are seen in the background, and the sky is blue.
Santiago is surrounded by mountains.

The air became clear after several days, and I was finally able to enjoy the view of the ancient Andes, green parks and hills, as well as the beautiful architecture of the city’s buildings. This taught me to appreciate what I have. Santiago is surrounded by mountains that have witnessed centuries of history. However, the lack of wind in the city due to these mountains makes heat concentrate in the higher layers of the air, causing the smog in Chilean winter. If it rains in the city, people become really happy because the air will be clear the next day.

MGA students pose for a picture on a street in Chile.
The MGA students in our i-Lab team.

Chilean winter is not as cold as winters in the Midwest, yet it is cold inside the buildings. I was really lucky that my host family had a heating system in their house. Otherwise, I would have frozen in cold nights and mornings. Again, I took this type of comfort for granted until the moment that I found out that my teammates had sometimes been feeling cold in their apartments.

Learning to appreciate the little things

Inequality in Chile has been a topic of not only regional but also global importance. Reading articles and books about this issue is very different from seeing it up close. Social and economic inequality leads to education inequality, causing a lower quality of education at public schools. This has been a problem to work on for many for- and non-profit organizations, among which is Enseña Chile – a Chilean version of Teach for America. This NGO collaborates with public schools. Its branch Colegios Que Aprenden (“Schools that Learn”), which Seiko, Frank and I closely worked with, offers its expertise to leadership teams to improve the learning environment at their schools.

Our cooperation with Colegios Que Aprenden partner schools has revealed that school leaders have different motivations for educational improvement, as well as different priorities. In most cases, leaders need basic things like safety and security of children. Once we went to a school without any actual buildings—temporary, truck-type constructions were the only shelter. Still the children were happy. When we had a meeting with a principal of the school, we discovered that she is a really nice person trying to do her best as a principal and make the most of the situation.

MGA student Seiko Kanda interviews leadership in an administrative office of a public school in Santiago, Chile.
Interview at a public school.
MGA students pose with their partner organizations in an education building in Santiago, Chile.
Our team and Enseña Chile staff.

Thinking about all of these things leads me to conclude that the concept of “No one left behind” is really tough to achieve. You can do your best to develop a learning environment at schools, but unfulfilled basic needs make your job more arduous. But seeing very optimistic and assiduous people facing a harsh reality and still not stopping their efforts encourages us to work hard, as well. Thus, the ability to be grateful for every little thing and keep continuing is the most important skill.

P.S. Chile does not only have negative sides. The natural beauty of this Latin American country along with its hospitable and sober-minded people made our journey unforgettable. A coin has two faces: I tried to capture the country from all angles, choosing photos to show the beauty of the country and using words to describe the experience that taught us not to take everything for granted.

An orange sunset on a beach in Viña del Mar.
An orange sunset on a beach in Viña del Mar.